Each semester, students in my courses invest significant time in mastering library and database research skills, developing annotated bibliographies as the basis for a final research paper.  At first the assignment strikes many students as  challenging, if not overwhelming.  But most students grow to enjoy and value the experience, as they refine their topic, and begin to develop a specialized expertise in a subject that they are passionate about and that may be of central relevance to their professional goals.

The following are basic guidelines I have developed to assist students as they research topics related to science communication, health communication, environmental communication, political communication, risk communication, journalism and the media, and strategic communication. The Journalist Resource at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center has also developed a series of very useful features and resources, aimed at educating journalists and journalism students on searching the literature, with these resources generalizable to almost any field. Especially relevant resources include:


An annotated bibliography is a list of citations to books, book chapters, articles, and documents. Each citation is followed by a brief descriptive and evaluative paragraph called “the annotation.” (Usually 150-300 words.) The annotation should include mention of the expectations/hypotheses tested in the study, the methods/data used, the relevant findings, the limitations, and conclusion.  Below is an example of an entry.  To read a full bibliography developed to inform the work of the National Academies relative to science communication and the entertainment industry, see this example of a research project I conducted with Anthony Dudo of the University of Texas.

Nisbet, M.C. (2005). The competition for worldviews: Values, information, and public support for stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 17, 1, 90-112.

The author argues that contrary to the popular assumption that science literacy is a key influence on public opinion about science, most citizens lack both the motivation and the ability to be fully informed about a complex topic like the stem cell debate.  Instead of relying on knowledge, the public as “cognitive misers” actively look for information short cuts to make up their minds.  To reach a judgment, the public relies heavily on their religious/ideological values in combination with only those images and interpretations about the issue most readily available in the news media.  These expectations are in line with past research by Downs and Popkin asserting “low information rationality,” along with research on issue priming.  Analyzing nationally representative survey data collected in 2001 and 2002, the author finds that given a predominantly positive mainstream news image of stem cell research, the more that non-religious to moderately religious citizens report hearing, reading, or seeing about the issue, the more positive their views.  But for the strongly religious, their values serve as a “perceptual screen,” so that despite hearing, reading, or seeing more about the issue, their opposition remains relatively unchanged.  The author presents subsequent polling data from 2003-2004 supporting his main finding.  He cites as a limitation the lack of survey measures specific to a type of news outlet, (i.e. TV versus print, or mainstream versus ideological.)  The study concludes that rather than knowledge shifting public opinion about controversial science, the miserly public is likely to be moved by selective interpretations that are filtered heavily by pre-existing value orientations.  Just “getting the facts” out there is not effective, strategists need to think about framing issues in ways that resonate with a specific publics’ underlying values.

Some rules-of-thumb in thinking about conducting your search:

You should think of your annotated bibliography as an evolving and iterative process. After reading four to five good articles in the area, return to your topic, with an eye towards narrowing it down or being more specific in the dimensions explored.  Starting early will the be the key to doing well and being satisfied with your final product. It will take you time to find articles, digest them, and piece them together into an integrated understanding.  Along the way, please take advantage of regular conversations and meetings with me about the process and any questions you might have.

In conceptualizing your topic and narrowing your search, you should visualize a “funnel” approach. Start very broadly with a conceptualization of the topic, and then focus more narrowly on different dimensions, or towards a more specific topical focus.  Along the way, you are trying to tell a story about how research in the area has evolved, how it fits together, the lingering unanswered questions, and why it matters.

Remember, your review of the available literature is expected to be rigorous.  Though it will vary by topic, about 80% of the annotated entries in your bibliographies should be from peer-reviewed academic journals, from chapters in academic edited volumes, or from book length studies published by academic presses.

Popular mass market books like The Tipping Point or Freakonomics can be very useful in integrating a lot of material, giving you a glimpse of the big picture, and in providing anecdotes about how a specific theory or body of research is shaping communication strategies and processes, but these types of sources should only make up a very small portion of your annotated entries.

Similarly, other long form journalist sources like articles from The New Yorker, the NY Times, Atlantic Monthly, Columbia Journalism Review, BusinessWeek, The Economist, The National Journal, AdWeek, Advertising Age, PR Week, and Brand Week may be cited in your paper, but should not be included in your annotated bibliography as entries.

Many of you will be looking for articles across “basic research” journals as listed below.  The place to start for searching these journalis are databases such as Communication Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts, International Political Science Abstracts, and PsychINFO, which capture most of these journals.  Once you become more familiar with your topic and the related literature, Google Scholar may become your preferred place to search.

  • Science Communication
  • Environmental Communication
  • Public Understanding of Science
  • Communication Research
  • Journal of Communication
  • Human Communication Research
  • Public Opinion Quarterly
  • International Journal of Public Opinion Research
  • Communication Theory
  • Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly
  • American Journal of Political Science
  • American Political Science Review
  • Journal of Politics
  • Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
  • American Behavioral Scientist
  • American Journal of Sociology
  • American Sociological Review
  • Sociological Quarterly
  • Global Environmental Change
  • Climatic Change
  • Wiley Reviews Climate Change
  • Nature Climate Change

As you move to applications of your theories in public health, advertising, public relations, management, marketing, and/or organizational behavior, you may be searching journals such as:

  • Health Communication
  • Journal of Health Communication
  • Annual Review of Public Health
  • American Journal of Public Health
  • BMC Public Health
  • Journal of Advertising
  • Journal of Advertising Research
  • Journal of Marketing
  • Journal of Organizational Behavior
  • Journal of Marketing Research
  • Academy of Management Journal
  • Public Relations Quarterly
  • Public Relations Research
  • Journal of Applied Communication Research

Here are a few examples of the “starting broad, and moving more narrow” approach:

  • A student is interested in the concept of opinion leadership, and more specifically how it relates to election and political camapigns.  The literature review would ideally start with an overview of the various conceptualizations of opinion leadership taken from the last 40 years of research.  Is it defined by behavior/actions or by personality traits?  How do you measure it? What role are opinion-leaders thought to play as information brokers in society?  How do differences in conceptualization and measurement of opinion-leaders alter or shape campaign planning or targeting?  Next the literature review would move more specifically to reviewing research that has looked at the role of opinion-leadership in political campaigns and elections.
  • A student is interested in the use of social norms marketing to shape behavior change among teens.  The literature review would open broadly with a discussion of the nature and influence of social norms perceptions. Then move more specifically to describing the research specific to social norms marketing, and then finally even more narrowly, research specific to social norms marketing campaigns among youth.  The literature review would to focused research questions about what makes for an effective social norms marketing campaign directed at youth.